Largest prisoner swap in Donbas: 73 Ukrainians released from captivity of Russian-run “republics”

prisoner swap

The released Ukrainian hostages being welcomed by their relatives. Boryspil, Kyiv Oblast, 28 December 2017, about 1 a.m. Photograph: president.gov.ua  

News, Peace to Ukraine, War in the Donbas

On 27 December, Ukraine and Russian-run so-called Luhansk and Donetsk people’s republics (“LNR” and “DNR”) conducted its largest prisoner exchange since war broke out in the Eastern-Ukrainian region of the Donbas in 2014. In total, 73 Ukrainians who have been held hostage in the occupied territories of eastern Ukraine were released, the press service of the Verkhovna Rada reports. In turn, Ukraine handed over 233 citizens who were detained, being tried or already sentenced in Ukraine. Initially, the 74-to-306 swap was planned, but one Ukrainian servicewoman refused to return home, so did 73 persons who decided to remain in free Ukraine. The second stage of the all-to-all swap is planned for the next year, 29 more Ukrainian hostages can be released.

Russia had effectively blocked the prisoner exchange process in the Donbas for 15 months from September 2016, when two Ukrainian nationals were released from captivity.

This September Ukraine was ready to release 309 prisoners in exchange for 87 Ukrainian hostages in the Donbas. In early November, the Trilateral Contact Group on settlement in Ukraine (TCG or the Minsk group) has finally approved the prisoner exchange of 74 Ukrainian hostages taken by “LNR/DNR” for 306 persons held in Ukrainian prisons “before the New Year’s Day.” 

Read more: Ukraine may swap its 74 hostages in occupied Donbas before New Year

A footage showing Ukrainian hostages in occupied Luhansk embussing to get to Donetsk Oblast for exchange in the the morning of 27 December 2017.

“On December 27, the hostage release has been conducted in the area of Mayorsk, Donetsk Oblast. Seventy-three those illegally held Ukrainians were freed from prisons run by militants in certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts [ORDLO, the official designation of the occupied territories],” said MP Iryna Herashchenko, Ukraine’s humanitarian envoy to the Minsk group, according to the press service of the Parliament.

The very first moments of the prisoner exchange. Footage: Military TV of Ukraine

Ms.Herashchenko highlighted, “In turn, the Ukrainian side has handed over 233 people from the list of 306 by pardoning them and releasing them from custody.”

According to Ms.Herashchenko, Ukrainian negotiators in the Minsk Group “fought the most severe and tough fight” for the freedom of the servicemen, who had been behind bars in the occupied territory a long time since January-February 2015, when the Debaltseve Battle and the Battle for Donetsk Airport had ended.

ORDLO

One former Ukrainian servicewoman decided to stay with her family in occupied Donetsk, according to the “DNR” sources.

So did 73 prisoners in Ukraine, who chose to stay in free Ukraine rather than move to its occupied territory. According to Ukrainian ombudswoman Valeriya Lutkovska, 43 of them didn’t show up at the swap point because they had served their sentence and had been released from custody earlier, the other chose not to return to the occupied area during the swap process.

The released Ukrainian captives were brought to the Kramatorsk military airfield, where Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko and the Minister of Defense Stepan Poltorak welcomed them and flew together with them by helicopters to the northeastern city of Kharkiv, where the planes were prepared for the released Ukrainians to fly them to the capital city of Kyiv.

About midnight, the released Ukrainians arrived in Boryspil Military Airport near Kyiv where they were warmly welcomed by thousands of Ukrainians.

President Petro Poroshenko welcomes the released hostages in Kramatorsk.

Apart from the President and Defense Minister, Ombudsman  Valeriia Lutkovska, MP Iryna Gerashchenko, and Ambassador of France Isabelle Dumont also met with the released hostages.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel called the exchange “an important humanitarian gesture” ahead of Orthodox Christmas and noted, “Further steps to implement the Minsk [ceasefire] agreements should now follow. The successful prisoner exchange shows that this is possible.”

The exchange came as U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asked Russia to “lower the level of violence” in eastern Ukraine.

While Poroshenko is thanking the Normandy format, the U.S., the TCG, the OSCE and the other international organizations for the swap, representative of the occupation authorities Olga Kobtseva thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin, KyivPost reports.

Who was released

There are both civilians and the military among the 73 released Ukrainian hostages. Soldiers were taken hostage during the battles, civilians were mostly pro-Ukrainian local residents who reported the latest developments on social networks or just openly showed their pro-Ukrainian position.

Servicemen Oleksandr Morozov and Ivan Liasa were taken captive amid the Battle for Donetsk Airport (2014-2015); two volunteers from Kryvbas battalion, Mykola Herasymenko and Oleksandr Lazarenko have been held behind bars since February 2015 after the Debalseve Battle.

National Guards representative Yevhen Chudnetsov was sentenced by the occupation authorities to 30 years in prison.

Soldiers Oleksandr Oliinyk, Oleksii Kodman, Oleksii Kyrychenko, Oleksandr Kalin were taken captive being wounded during the period from the end of 2014 to the beginning of 2016 during the toughest battles at the frontline.

Another released hostage is 22-year-old contract soldier Valentyn Bohdan from Lviv Oblast captured in 2016 winter.

Among the released civilians, there are 63-year-old religious specialist and academic Ihor Kozlovskyi from Donetsk and a civic volunteer Volodymyr Fomichov who was captured as he visited his relatives in the occupied zone.

Another released hostage is Halyna Haiova from occupied Dokuchaevsk, who worked as a nurse in the city hospital. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “espionage.”

Read also: Ukrainian civil resistance to Russian occupation in Donbas

Luhansk football fans Vlad Ovcharenko and Artem Akhmerov who were detained in October 2016 and later sentenced by a Luhansk “court” to 13 and 17 years in prison for “high treason in the form of espionage” were also released, as well as Luhansk blogger Eduard Nedeliaiev.

The next swap

Viktor Medvedchuk, Russian President Putin’s crony who represents Ukraine in the Minsk group, told the Russian  TV channel NTV that at the 2nd stage of the all-to-all swap, 74 people will be handed over by Ukraine, the “republics” are going to release 29 Ukrainian hostages. However, the next stage is not approved yet and it will be negotiated in early 2018.

According to the Security Service of Ukraine, citing its head Vasyl Hrytsak, in total, 3,125 Ukrainians have been found and released since 2014, other 103 people remain held hostage in Luhansk & Donetsk Oblasts, 402 are considered missing.

 

  • The Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine was created after the May 2014 Ukrainian presidential election to facilitate a diplomatic resolution to the war in the Donbas.
  • The TCG consists of representatives from Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
  • Prisoner exchanges in the all-for-all format are one of the provisions of the Minsk-2, the Package of Measures on the implementation of the Minsk agreements was signed by TCG on 12 February 2014 in Belarus.

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